Films From the Void: THE SNAKE WOMAN

FILMS FROM THE VOID is a journey through junk bins, late night revivals, underseen recesses and reject piles as we try to find forgotten gems and lesser known classics. Join us as we lose our minds sorting through the strange, the sleazy, the sincere and the slop from the past and try to make sense of it all.

In 1890 England, a crazed doctor, in order to cure his wife’s sick mind, injects her with snake venom. She later gives birth to a beautiful daughter the villagers begin to call The Devil’s Baby. They soon terrorize and burn the family’s house down. Years later, a Scotland Yard detective is sent to the village to investigate a rash of deaths that are caused by snakebite…. large snake bites!

One of the earliest films from director Sidney Furie, 1961’s The Snake Woman is definitely an example of someone still learning their craft. If one considers the fact that 20 years later, Furie would go on to make The Entity — an extraordinarily disturbing film — The Snake Woman seems an awful lot like practice. Still, the film’s a very fun, inoffensive kind of thing you could throw on some Sunday afternoon while you’re making dinner and not really miss anything if you have to turn away and stir the sauce for a minute.

The film’s opening scene sets up a film that will, alas, never come to be. In the late 1800s, Dr. Adderson (oh, now I get it) is a herpetologist whose wife, Martha, suffers from some kind of mental illness. They don’t say what, so I assume it’s the generic “crazy” which afflicted oh-so-many silver screen victims up until the great cinematic multiple personality outbreak of the mid-’70s.

Anyhow: Adderson has been keeping his wife relatively sane by injecting her with snake venom, because why not? Turns out she’s pregnant, as she reveals right before she gives birth and then immediately dies. The baby girl is cold when born, so obviously the doctor thinks she’s dead. Of course, she isn’t, and stares without blinking, so the midwife tries not only stabbing the baby, but attempts to get a mob together to kill the devil’s spawn.

The medical doctor, Murton, who delivered the baby, sneaks her away and gives her to a local shephard to raise. I have no idea why this is a thing, but it seems like there was a period of time where it was assumed that, if you could raise sheep, a baby should be no big deal.

Jump ahead 19 years, and Murton has returned from a sojorn to Africa. Corpses are piling up in the little village from exotic snake bites. A detective, Charles Prentice, is sent from Scotland Yard to investigate. Prentice is every British or American pastoral horror protagonist ever. Actually, he’s every B-movie male protagonist ever: strong-jawed, determined to do his job, but utterly clueless to anything having to do with a mysterious young woman who has a ton of circumstantial connections to each and every murder.

That mysterious young woman is, of course, Atheris, the Addersons’ child, and born of snake venom injections in utero. The unfortunate part is that Atheris is simply gorgeous, but not particularly serpentine at any point. The Snake Woman is pretty low-budget, meaning we’re given quite a few shots of snakes in the grass, but aside from an actually pretty gross shed skin of Atheris — full body, even — the film never gets nearly as weird as the opening moments promise.

The opening scene gives the illusion that this will be a movie of superstitious villagers battling a snake person, and I guess it sort of is, but we get maybe one later scene with the now-elderly midwife being creepy and making prognostications to Detective Prentice, and Atherthis being charmed by the melody of a snake charmer’s flute that he just happened to find in the middle of the English countryside.

Evidently, the original version of the film got an X-certificate from the BBFC, meaning it was suitable only for those aged 16 and above, but after it was cut, it was given an A-certificate, meaning children could see it, if accompanied by an adult. At this point, I’m certain you could show it to most kids without anything other than a lot of giggling.

That’s not to say that The Snake Woman is without its charms; it’s certainly not hampered by any extraneous plot, and plays out like a tight television photoplay of the era. The fact that it was all shot inside on a soundstage (in Surrey, evidently) gives it that certain unrealistic feel which helps with the off-kilter aura it’s attempting to create.

The performances are gloriously scenery chewing, especially the opening scene. John Cazabon as Adderson is a very restrained mad scientist, but obviously unhinged, nonetheless, and as his wife, Martha, Dorothy Frere is all “woe betide!” Midwife Addie Harker, played by Elsie Wagstaff, is the film’s ace in the hole, and she knows how to be the clever-yet-superstitious old woman, playing the role to the hilt.

Everyone else is more or less perfunctory, and Susan Travers’s Atheris basically meant to be pretty and mysterious, which she does. John McCarthy as Prentice is interchangable with every guy in every ’60s movie ever shown on MST3K. It’s a fun way to spend an hour, and while it never really delivers on the promise of the opening scenes, the Wagstaff elements and the strangeness of a British countryside on a Surrey soundstage give The Snake Woman a wonderful angle of weirdness.

The Snake Woman is currently available on DVD from Cheezy Movies. They’ve a very nice transfer, and the packaging uses the actual movie poster, rather than some poorly thought out new artwork. It’s pretty basic, but looks good.

Nick Spacek

Nick Spacek

Nick Spacek writes about films scores in his monthly OST column for Starburst Magazine (http://www.starburstmagazine.com), and can be found talking about movie soundtracks via the From & Inspired By podcast (http:///www.fromandinspiredby.com). He was once a punk, but realized you can't be hardcore and use the word "adorable" as often as he does.
Nick Spacek

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